IT'S the morning after for Middle East peace. Yasser Arafat's ebullient face is fading from American talk shows. Stoic Yitzhak Rabin is resting in Jerusalem after signing recognition deals with both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Morocco. President Clinton, on Monday an emcee to history, has turned pitchman, promoting the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The flag-waving is over. Now the hard slog begins.
Diplomats will have to move fast to fill in the details left blank in the general Israeli-PLO rapprochement. After decades of conflict the publics on both sides of the Middle East equation are waiting with raised expectations. A return to the status quo of Mideast talks, in which ``progress'' used to be measured by micrometer, risks an explosion of disappointment among Palestinians and a hardening of Israeli attitudes.
``This thing has got a lot of fragility to it,'' says Alfred Leroy Atherton Jr., a former assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asia and participant in the Carter-era Camp David talks.
Some tough issues await resolution.
Under the signed PLO-Israeli timetable, by December 1995 talks must begin on a permanent agreement - meaning such touchy subjects as the final status of Jerusalem.
The only way to settle such problems is for trust to build slowly as the PLO and Israeli officials deal daily with each other during the transition to Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho.
This interim period will give both sides the opportunity to live together and show that cooperation works, insist United States officials. Barriers of the mind should fall. ``It will be an entirely different situation from the standpoint of their mutual psychology a couple of years down the road,'' says a senior US official who asked not to be identified.
From a practical standpoint, there is as yet no structure to carry PLO-Israeli talks forward. On Sept. 14, PLO officials met with US State Department counterparts to discuss how to establish the formal committees called for in the general agreement.
Whether those committees would continue to meet in Washington as part of the ongoing comprehensive Middle East peace talks or whether they would meet back in the region has yet to be determined.
Similarly the PLO must set up a structure to handle the international aid that will soon start flowing in. The PLO needs money to help establish a governmental structure in Gaza and Jericho - and governments around the world have indicated they will be more than happy to help. The problem won't be fund-raising, note US officials. It will be fund spending.
``What is necessary is to ensure that the right types of institutions and the right people are there on the ground who can make sure that the assistance effort is effective,'' said State Department spokesman Mike McCurry on Sept. 14.
The US expects to play a major role in this implementation. It is true that the credit for the final PLO-Israel breakthrough goes to Norway, which hosted secret talks, and of course to the parties themselves. But decades of US effort set the stage for the agreement.
Ironically, the US is now likely to become more involved in the region's diplomacy. That's because the role of pact guarantor is necessarily more comprehensive than that of negotiation promoter.
THE two sides believe that ``if anything, the kind of help they're going to need from the United States is even more than it's been in the past,'' said the senior US official.
The same holds true for the broader Middle East peace talks, which will continue in Washington.
In these, the most important unfinished negotiation is now the one between Israel and Syria. Many experts thought an agreement between the two over Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was near; in the wake of the Israeli peace with the PLO, that is now less clear.
The personal intervention of President Clinton may eventually be necessary to bring Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad to the point of shaking hands with his Israeli counterpart, Rabin.
In his remarks this week Clinton indicated that he is now personally committed to the success of Middle East peace and would do what is necessary to make talks move forward.
It's important that a US president who once pledged to focus on the domestic economy fulfill this promise. Otherwise, even the progress that has been made so far may come to nothing.
Ken Stein, head of Emory University's Center for Middle East Studies in Atlanta and an adviser to former President Carter, points out that at the Monday signing ceremony the participants did not sit down at the table together. They signed sequentially, then stepped away.
With the Camp David accords, Carter, Sadat, and Begin sat down as one. This time, the participants were ``still a little scared,'' Dr. Stein says.